Hong Kong's chief executive attempted to soothe tensions with student-led democracy protesters Thursday by reviving an offer of talks, though public anger over alleged police brutality against activists may complicate efforts to end a bitter political standoff.
Leung Chun-ying said the government is ready to start a dialogue with protest leaders as soon as next week, but urged activists to be pragmatic and stressed that Beijing would not change its mind on election restrictions.
There was no immediate response from the student groups, and it was unclear whether the proposed meeting could overcome vast differences between the two sides.
Protesters oppose the Chinese central government's ruling that a committee stacked with pro-Beijing elites should screen candidates in the territory's first direct chief executive and Legislative Council elections, to be held in 2017. It means only Beijing-approved candidates will be able to run for those offices.
The Chinese government has refused to acquiesce to protesters’ demand that it not screen candidates, fearful that calls for greater democratic participation could spread to the mainland.
Authorities had proposed talks with student leaders last week, but later called them off on the grounds that they were likely to produce constructive results.
Leung took a different tone Tuesday in the wake of the apparent police beating, caught on camera, of protester Ken Tsang Kin-chiu, a member of the pro-democracy Civic Party.
"As long as students or other sectors in Hong Kong are prepared to focus on this issue, yes we are ready, we are prepared to start the dialogue," Leung told reporters.
Leung was speaking after more than two weeks of protests paralyzed parts of Hong Kong and grabbed global.
At its peak, 100,000 protesters were on the streets of Hong Kong. Beijing condemned the mostly peaceful demonstrations — the most significant show of discontent by city dwellers since China took control of the semi-autonomous former British colony in 1997.
In a front-page editorial Wednesday, the People's Daily, the ruling Communist Party's mouthpiece, said the protests "are doomed to fail." There were no signs, however, that Beijing was planning to directly suppress the movement.
The numbers of people attending Hong Kong rallies has dwindled significantly from the height of the protests. But a dedicated group of demonstrators, mostly students, has kept up the pressure on Hong Kong authorities.
Meanwhile, Many Hong Kong residents have expressed outraged after a group of police officers were caught on camera early Wednesday apparently beating a protester with his hands cuffed behind his back.
"I think the police have betrayed us Hong Kong citizens," said Tony Yip, 23, a research assistant at a science museum. "They are using violence against ordinary citizens."
The seven officers, who have been suspended for the incident, were among hundreds battling with activists over control of a busy road next to city government headquarters and near the protesters' main occupation zone.
Leung did not directly respond to questions about when police would clear the protest sites, though he said they "cannot go on indefinitely."
"Going forward, we cannot allow the occupying of streets to have a negative impact on Hong Kong society. Police will use appropriate methods to deal with this problem," he said.
While Leung stressed that talks would not change Beijing's position on elections, he said there is scope for negotiations on how the committee that vets and nominates candidates is formed.
"In the second round of consultation, we can still listen to everyone's views. There is still room to discuss issues including the exact formation of the nomination committee," he said.
Al Jazeera and wire services